Saturday, September 8, 2007


I've written more than once about the American myth of self-invention and what trouble it's gotten us into. I guess great minds (?) think alike, because Stephen Colbert just produced a "The Word" segment on this topic. Here's a quote from it:
But now, Wiki-Scanner threatens another concept that’s even more American than democracy: self-invention. The idea that you can be whoever you want to be, whoever you say you are. Now you may come from generations of Connecticut blue-bloods and gone to the finest prep schools out east, but if you clear brush and talk with a Texas twang, you are a cowboy!

(Quilt "Talk of Nation" by Anna Young of the extraordinary Gee's Bend quilters)
Orcinus (I seem to recommend them a lot) has produced another superb essay on the intersection of racism and classism at What's Lynching Got To Do With The Price of Cotton? It's very worth the long read, and especially going to the suggested essays at the end on an effective truth and reconciliation process. For now, here's a quote from it:
"It's old news that economic stress increases tension between the various working classes in America. But [a new study linked to in the article] study brings up a couple points that shed some new light on where we find ourselves today.

"First, the study is striking in that it shows very directly how a poorly-performing economy correlates with extreme forms of racial violence. Whether it's violence against African-Americans in the South during the lynching years, Asians on the West Coast in the first part of the 20th century, or Mexicans in today's faltering market, a depressed white working class always means those just below them in the economic pecking order are sitting ducks for a wave of vigilante violence. The more you look at the history, the clearer it appears that the cause-and-effect relationship is both ubiquitous and inevitable. It's a fact of American life that whenever the economy tanks, people of color are going to pay the price in blood.

"Right now, of course, the wealth gap in this country is yawning ever-wider. It's as big now as it was during the 1920s heyday of sundowning and lynching across the country. (snip) When you get this many have-nots, there are only two ways to go. They're either going to turn on each other -- or organize.

"Which brings me to my second point. This kind of violence has always been instigated with a hard shove from the economic royalists, who would rather have the lower classes killing each other on the courthouse lawns rather than going inside the courthouses to challenge the structural inequalities they find so profitable. We know the Minutemen are backed by wealthy supporters, who are using the group to promote exactly the same kind of racial scapegoating that tore apart the early Populists -- and, no doubt, for exactly the same reasons. Now, as ever, divide-and-conquer is proving to be a handy-dandy little trick that never fails to prevent people with similar economic interests from recognizing their common concerns, and pulling together for real, long-term change."

I was fascinated by an article in the Washington Post about how Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach. I'm going to quote from it at length because it has some subtle, precise points that I think we need to learn in order to effectively counteract the massive lying of Bushistas:

"The research is painting a broad new understanding of how the mind works. Contrary to the conventional notion that people absorb information in a deliberate manner, the studies show that the brain uses subconscious "rules of thumb" that can bias it into thinking that false information is true. Clever manipulators can take advantage of this tendency.

"The experiments also highlight the difference between asking people whether they still believe a falsehood immediately after giving them the correct information, and asking them a few days later. Long-term memories matter most in public health campaigns or political ones, and they are the most susceptible to the bias of thinking that well-recalled false information is true.

"The experiments do not show that denials are completely useless; if that were true, everyone would believe the myths. But the mind's bias does affect many people, especially those who want to believe the myth for their own reasons, or those who are only peripherally interested and are less likely to invest the time and effort needed to firmly grasp the facts.

"The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

"Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain's subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.

"Many easily remembered things, in fact, such as one's birthday or a pet's name, are indeed true. But someone trying to manipulate public opinion can take advantage of this aspect of brain functioning. In politics and elsewhere, this means that whoever makes the first assertion about something has a large advantage over everyone who denies it later.

"Furthermore, a new experiment by Kimberlee Weaver at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and others shows that hearing the same thing over and over again from one source can have the same effect as hearing that thing from many different people -- the brain gets tricked into thinking it has heard a piece of information from multiple, independent sources, even when it has not. Weaver's study was published this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"The experiments by Weaver, Schwarz and others illustrate another basic property of the mind -- it is not good at remembering when and where a person first learned something. People are not good at keeping track of which information came from credible sources and which came from less trustworthy ones, or even remembering that some information came from the same untrustworthy source over and over again. Even if a person recognizes which sources are credible and which are not, repeated assertions and denials can have the effect of making the information more accessible in memory and thereby making it feel true, said Schwarz.

"Experiments by Ruth Mayo, a cognitive social psychologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, also found that for a substantial chunk of people, the "negation tag" of a denial falls off with time. Mayo's findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2004.

"If someone says, 'I did not harass her,' I associate the idea of harassment with this person," said Mayo, explaining why people who are accused of something but are later proved innocent find their reputations remain tarnished. "Even if he is innocent, this is what is activated when I hear this person's name again.

"If you think 9/11 and Iraq, this is your association, this is what comes in your mind," she added. "Even if you say it is not true, you will eventually have this connection with Saddam Hussein and 9/11."

"Mayo found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth. Rather than say, as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) recently did during a marathon congressional debate, that "Saddam Hussein did not attack the United States; Osama bin Laden did," Mayo said it would be better to say something like, "Osama bin Laden was the only person responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks" -- and not mention Hussein at all.

"The psychologist acknowledged that such a statement might not be entirely accurate -- issuing a denial or keeping silent are sometimes the only real options. So is silence the best way to deal with myths? Unfortunately, the answer to that question also seems to be no.

"Another recent study found that when accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true, said Peter Kim, an organizational psychologist at the University of Southern California. He published his study in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

"Myth-busters, in other words, have the odds against them."

(Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay)

One of the most effective tools we mythbusters DO have is humor. For all you Buffy fans, here's a short, hilarious quiz: GOP Frontrunner or Buffy Villain: You Decide!

A recent article from the Sci-Tech section of CBS News covers a study which illustrates in interesting detail how one of the evils of sexism -- the reduction of women to their appearance -- is internalized and reinforced by both genders:

"In the study, participants were asked before the session to fill out a questionnaire about what they were looking for in a mate, listing such categories as wealth and status, family commitment, physical appearance, healthiness and attractiveness. After the session, the researchers compared what the participants said they were looking for with the people they actually chose to ask for another date.

"Men's choices did not reflect their stated preferences, the researchers concluded. Instead, men appeared to base their decisions mostly on the women's physical attractiveness. The men also appeared to be much less choosy. Men tended to select nearly every woman above a certain minimum attractiveness threshold, Todd said.

"Women's actual choices, like men's, did not reflect their stated preferences, but they made more discriminating choices, the researchers found. The scientists said women were aware of the importance of their own attractiveness to men, and adjusted their expectations to select the more desirable guys.

"Women made offers to men who had overall qualities that were on a par with the women's self-rated attractiveness. They didn't greatly overshoot their attractiveness," Todd said, "because part of the goal for women is to choose men who would stay with them".

But, he added, "they didn't go lower. They knew what they could get and aimed for that level." So, it turns out, the women's attractiveness influenced the choices of the men and the women."

(Image from the wonderfully irreverent Art Is Not A Scam)

And, back to humor for our conclusion, a completely heartening story from the Asheville, Tennessee IndyMedia covers how creative and courageous prostestors used ridicule in a brilliant way to drive a Nazi and Klan rally out of Knoxville. Read it and pass it on! White Flour Forever!